Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Eff the critics

If you click around my blog, you'll notice that I had, in the past, attempted to write two other blogs, about book and film criticism, respectively. So yeah, I like to voice my opinion about stuff. But I have never, ever tried to write any critiques of tabletop games. You'd think in this blog, such reviews would be a natural fit. So why don't I?

The answer is simple, albeit controversial: I don't believe in reviews of tabletop games. I mean, I DO believe they exist, since I've seen and read them, of course; but I don't believe in any one person's ability to give a complete and fair review.

To explain this, I'm going to go off on a little bit of a tangent here, so bear with me. You see, art, as it exists in literary and film formats, is static. Two people can watch the same movie and, all other things being equal, will have the same experience. They may differ as to how much they appreciate that experience, but it's the same experience. Videogames are similar in that way...Call of Duty is always Call of Duty, regardless of who you are, how you experience it, and what you expect from it. So all of these things can be fairly reviewed, based on the vision the creators had, and their attempts to actualize that vision. When a seasoned critic...not some random dude on the internet, but a pro, your Roger Eberts, your James Bernardinellis...reviews a film, they are essentially answering the question did this film/book/videogame do what it set out to do? Their entire review is a yes or no answer to that question, and how the critic came to that answer.

That question cannot be answered for tabletop games, however, because tabletop games are fully interactive, in a way videogames are not. The designer of a tabletop game, even a fairly rigid boardgame, can have no complete idea about how their game is going to be played once it's out in the wild. One can play a World of Darkness horror game as slapstick comedy without changing a single rule. The designer may have intended for their game to be horror, but the players are using it for comedy. And if it's working and the players are having fun with it, then the designer did not fail. His product is simply being used in an unintentional way.

Thus, tabletop games are not art. And if you accept my definition of a review as an answer to the question "did it work?", then a tabeltop game cannot be fairly reviewed, because the answer in the case of every tabletop game is "depends on the players." 

So, all that being said, I'm going to throw out a couple of caveats, then publish this and get flamed by the entire tabletop community (well I guess I'm being a little arrogant here, as I doubt even 1% of the entire tabletop community reads this). The caveats are as follows:

1. Tabletop reviews do have value. A review of a tabletop RPG/boardgame can serve as a very detailed, very informative evaluation of all the various aspects of that game. It can't answer the question "Will you like it?" because that, as explained before, depends on how you use it, but a review can make some specific statements about the quality of the artwork, the clarity of the rules, the production value, etc.

2. Reviews are a valid way to communicate your feelings on a game. One could argue that a review is just one dude's opinion. If you believe that, then nothing's different for tabletop reviews: it's still just one dude's opinion. The "your mileage may vary" caveat may be much bigger in a tabletop review than other kinds of reviews, but it's still, at the end of the day, your opinion. I can't stress this second caveat enough, because I do believe there is room for two definitions of reviews. So if you happen to believe that a review is indeed nothing more than one dude's opinion, we automatically agree to disagree. (And, incidentially, I apologize that you read an entire blog entry arguing with that definition).

3. Tabletop games aren't art. They're something more. Something better. Alot of people are probably going to be pissed about my denouncement of tabletop gaming as not art, but let's not get out of control here: "not art" doesn't mean "it sucks." It means just that: "not art." Sofas are awesome. But they are not art. A good set of power tools are awesome. But they are not art. A 50-inch LCD TV is awesome. But it aint' art. So it is with tabletop games. I love them more than any human being should ever love an inanimate object. But that doesn't make them art. For what it's worth, I think tabletop games are something better than art, because they foster creativity and interaction with others. Art can do that, too, but tabletop games are designed for it, whereas art, typically, is not.

And, one last caveat:

4. Who the hell am I? I am not Roger Ebert. I am not a game designer. I have not published anything significant, by any definition. Although I do have a Bachelors degree in Writing and am one semester away from a Masters degree in it, I have no specialized knowledge beyond that about what art is, or isn't. I am just one of those random dudes on the internet keeping a blog. So if you disagree with me, all that's fundamentally happened here is this: you don't feel the same way as Some Other Guy. So there's no need to hate. Right? RIGHT?

8 comments:

  1. You are my boy and everything but I think your definition of a review is pretty wrong here. Having defined a review the way you did, you are then able to support your conclusion that it is of limited use for TRPGs, this is called begging the question or at least a complex question fallacy since it depends on the answer to another question "what is a 'review'" being answered in a certain way. Saying a review or criticism centers around what the creator intended and how well they realized their vision ignores a good 80% of critical theory. There are many valid reviews that can be done of any piece of media, including tabletop RPGs, that don't involve trying to deduce what the author or authors "meant" and how well they succeeded.

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    1. Fair enough! However, regardless of your ideas coming from decades of critical theory and mine coming straight from my ass, I still believe what I believe.

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  2. An interesting take on the review format. I agree, by your definition tabletop games are not art and thus cannot be reviewed as if they were. With that of course being said I believe that someone can objectively review a tabletop game, it's the purpose of the review when applied to art that is the problem. With a painting or a movie a review is generally geared towards interpretation, which as you pointed out is subjective. When someone reads the review for a tabletop game though I would assume (and perhaps I assume too much) that they want to know a few basic things. Does the game work? How easy is it to learn? How long does it take to play? How extensive and/or customizable is the system? It is true that with tabletop roleplaying games the fun really depends on the group but none can deny that a game that is created based on a confusing and shoddy ruleset with inconsistencies or balance issues is just generally an awful game. Could you have fun with it? I suppose you could if your group had the patience to trudge through the system but that alone doesn't make it a good game and a good review could isolate and identify these issues so that readers could make informed decisions.

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    1. I agree. Like I said in the first caveat, a tabletop review can be packed with very important, useful information. But I don't think they can accurately be summed up with a thumbs-up, thumbs-down judgement, or a 1-10 scale like some videogame sites use. There are just too many variables to consider.

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    2. I've actually stopped using ratings in reviews that I do (which are not common). I mostly stick with "This is what I liked, this is what I didn't like, and why do these vampires shit iron?"

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  3. Excellent article, Ed! I agree that tabletop games are not art, and cannot be evaluated in the same way in any meaningful sense. My personal sense is that TTGs are tools, tools to build art, and the art is in the play, as it were.

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  4. I not sure about your take on video game reviews. I haven't played a video game for about 15 years except the odd waving of a joystick before declaring it as nonsense. if I were to review Call of Duty I'd say it stinks. A lot of people disagree. If I were to review Laser Squad Nemesis I'd say it was the way war games should be written (and played). Two people reviewing the same thing won't necessarily reach the same conclusion, all being equal. Because two different people aren't equal. Prejudices and past experiences differ with every reviewer. All reviews are subjective ams only meaningful if you agree with the reviewer on a core of basic points (eg If you both think FPS games are boring and rubbish you're more likely to get something useful from the review by someone who hates FPS games in general)

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  5. I not sure about your take on video game reviews. I haven't played a video game for about 15 years except the odd waving of a joystick before declaring it as nonsense. if I were to review Call of Duty I'd say it stinks. A lot of people disagree. If I were to review Laser Squad Nemesis I'd say it was the way war games should be written (and played). Two people reviewing the same thing won't necessarily reach the same conclusion, all being equal. Because two different people aren't equal. Prejudices and past experiences differ with every reviewer. All reviews are subjective ams only meaningful if you agree with the reviewer on a core of basic points (eg If you both think FPS games are boring and rubbish you're more likely to get something useful from the review by someone who hates FPS games in general)

    ReplyDelete